Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was the last man standing against Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, due in large measure to his strong support from Christian Right activists. It wasn’t enough, however, as Cruz's support among the various other groups that make up the Republican coalition was weak.
Cruz’s cultivation of an angry outsider image and his abrasive personality also meant that even after he became the only person standing between Trump and the GOP nomination, many Republican elites refused to support him. Cruz’s subsequent debacle at the party’s convention -- where he was booed by attendees for refusing to endorse Trump -- didn’t help his re-election situation, either.
With Trump set to take the oath of office, Cruz is trying a different strategy: making nice with the party elites in a campaign against the United Nations, a bête noire for Republicans nearly everywhere.
The new Cruz was on display Jan. 12 alongside quintessential establishment Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as the two senators and longtime rivals announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” a new bill that would block all funds for the UN until it repeals Resolution 2334. That was a non-binding proclamation that passed the Security Council last month that condemned Israel’s practice of building Jewish settlements inside the West Bank area of Palestine.
The joint appearance was notable given the two men’s history of animosity. Graham, a prominent hawk who also ran for president against Trump, once suggested that if someone murdered Ted Cruz on the Senate floor, that person would never be convicted of the crime.
Graham referenced his earlier insult on the program, saying, "I want to apologize to Ted for saying he should be killed on the Senate floor."
Cruz deflected with a joke: “At least we're not on the Senate floor now,” he deadpanned.
As a matter of policy, the Graham-Cruz collaboration isn’t likely to pass both houses of Congress, and even President Trump would not be likely to sign it. (Although with him, who really knows?) As a means of saving Cruz’s Canadian bacon in his 2018 re-election race, however, the newfound bonhomie may be just the right recipe.
But the UN defunding proposal is about more than just making nice with establishment hawks. It’s also part of an apparent broader Cruz strategy of trying to force Trump to the right on foreign policy, an area where Trump has often been willing to appear more moderate than his party.
Unlike some of Cruz’s previous power plays, such as his 2013 government shutdown gambit, this one might not blow up in his face.
One could see Cruz’s new approach at work later in the “Morning Joe” interview as he went on a tirade against Russian president Vladimir Putin. Trump has said he wants to patch up things with Putin, but neoconservatives like Graham are seemingly itching for military action. Given that Republican elites have subjected their voters to decades of conditioning that anything short of “boots on the ground” is a form of weakness equivalent to Neville Chamberlain's semi-surrender to Hitler, Cruz decided to turn up the rhetoric against the Russian leader: “He’s a thug and he's committed acts of war,” Cruz said. “I'm not at all hesitant to say so, and we need to stand up to him and resist."
He continued: "We need a president and an administration that recognizes those who are expressing hostility to America. We need to stand up to that."
It was music to Graham’s ears. Referring to Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Graham said, "If he had given that answer, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So Ted for Secretary of State.”
The New Cruz can also be seen in some of the other bills he’s backing in the new 115th Congress. There’s another Israel bill, this time trying to force Trump into designating the city of Jerusalem as the nation’s capital. Since Bill Clinton, every president has promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv into the disputed city, but diplomatic pressures have made it impossible to do so. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital, and it holds sites sacred to both Islam and Judaism.
On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly vowed to relocate the American embassy, and his nominee as ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, has donated money to West Bank settlers. So there’s a much stronger chance that Trump will follow through on the proposed move.
Another bill designed to force Trump’s hand on foreign policy is one Cruz introduced during the last Congress, a measure to designate the Egyptian-centered Muslim Brotherhood political organization as a terrorist movement. It’s a move that anti-Muslim conservatives have long called for, and one that Trump has also advocated. That wouldn’t be nearly as controversial as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem -- some Democrats would probably support the Muslim Brotherhood designation -- but it’s still another area where Cruz could portray himself as ahead of the pack if it happens.
Taiwan is another foreign policy area where Cruz has tried to reposition himself in front of Trump as well. Earlier this month, Cruz and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided to meet with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of the disputed island nation (which the Chinese government views as a breakaway province), when she traveled to Houston on other matters. The meeting was denounced by China, and fits in with Trump’s previous overtures to Taiwan. (He ignited a brief international firestorm by accepting a call from Tsai after he was elected).
Trump has slightly softened his tone toward China recently by saying he might be willing to continue past presidents’ refusal to recognize the independence of Taiwan from China if Beijing is more obliging on other matters. The president-elect has also signaled a possible willingness to go back on his campaign trail promise to label China as a “currency manipulator.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said about the Chinese relationship that “everything is under negotiation.” Future freelance moves from Cruz could potentially make such conversations with China more difficult.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump routinely took positions that were both more moderate and more conservative than his party. When it comes to foreign policy, Ted Cruz is looking to ensure that Trump has no room to move to the center. It’s exactly the role the controversial Texan has been waiting for.